Welcome to Bhutan! Settled on the eastern side of the Himalayas, this Buddhist nation boasts breath-taking landscapes, historic architecture, and a climate that can range from bone-chilling to subtropical. And with these dramatic seasons and landscapes comes unique cuisine. The food eaten in Bhutan is a mix of Indian, Nepali, Tibetan, and local specialties. If you want to know how to feast in this country, this foodie’s guide to Bhutan is for you!
This dish is the baseline for many others in Bhutan: chilis and cheese. No matter what you eat, you can almost guarantee that it will include one, or both, of these ingredients. Because of this, ema datshi is known as the national dish! The cheese could come from cows or yaks, and there is a large variety of chilis for chefs and home cooks to choose from.
What may look like Bhutan’s version of Thanksgiving gravy is actually potatoes, chili and cheese. Usually, this dish has a strong kick to it, and is eaten as a side dish. Potatoes are one of the only vegetables that can survive the altitude and climate, so it’s no surprise that other mountainous populations — like Juan’s family in Peru — take advantage of the starch as well.
SHAKAM EMA DATSHI
Recognize the word ‘datshi’ yet? You guessed it — this dish serves up even more chili and cheese! This time, the two staples come with dried beef. One of the most well-known dishes in Bhutan, you will find shakam ema datshi at every restaurant and in every home. Pair this with red rice, and you have a dish that you just may eat every day during your stay in Bhutan.
Another staple dish is phaksha paa, translating to stir-fried chilis and pork. This can also include root vegetables like turnips, and each dish may taste slightly different, depending on the amount of chili and spice the chef uses!
Have you ever tried yak meat? Bhutan is the place to do so!
Due to the country’s high altitude, yaks are vital for many Bhutanese families. Whether they’re used for breeding, grazing, health care products, transportation, or nutrition, yak agriculture is vitally important to a huge percentage of Bhutan’s population, so you have to learn a little more about it while you visit the country. Zhops (or yak herders) move nomadically with their yak, and around 10 percent of Bhutan’s population are involved in the yak industry, making yaksha shakam quintessentially Bhutanese!
Missing the classic scrambled eggs while hiking through Bhutan? Look no further than gondo datshi, a traditional dish consisting of eggs, datshi cheese, butter, and (of course) chili. The eggs are fried in an immense amount of yak butter, then topped with the classic mixture of chili and cheese to create Bhutan’s favorite breakfast dish.
JASHA MARU (or MAROO)
Yak meat is not the only animal protein to be had in the nation: jasha maru — chicken stew — is a widely consumed meal. To prepare the stew, the chef dices the chicken and cooks it with garlic, tomatoes, ginger, and chilis. Though it is a simple soup, the palate reflects the Indian and Chinese cuisine influences very well. This is the kind of meal that keeps you warm on those cold, mountainous days!
If you’re a vegetarian, you might be wondering how you would ever get by in Bhutan. Well then, momos are for you! Very similar to other Asian dumplings, momos could be filled with minced meat, cheese, or vegetables. Paired with a spicy chili dipping sauce, the veggie momos are filling and well seasoned, meaning that they’re the ultimate Bhutanese comfort food.
While some vegetables may struggle to survive the weather in this country, root veggies thrive. That’s why lom, or turnip leaves, are easily incorporated into many dishes. From stews to momos, lom will add a green pop to the meal. You can boil them with other proteins, add dried lom for a kick, or use them to garnish otherwise simple food. Turnips and potatoes, along with other vegetables that thrive underground, will be constants throughout your trip.
Do you think you’ll miss fruit while exploring Bhutan? Look no further than khatem, which is basically a fruit chip! Essentially, it is a dried bitter melon, which is thinly sliced and fried. Think of it as Bhutan’s potato chip.
Packed with important nutrients, bitter melon can lead to reduced blood sugar, decreased cholesterol levels, and anti-diabetic properties — all in a tasty snack or a side dish!
Surprisingly, oranges thrive in Bhutan too, and they’re one of the nation’s cash crops. Our artisan, Karma, used to pick oranges and sell them in his village as a kid!
In addition to healthy fruit chips and root vegetables, the Bhutanese get even more micronutrients from goen hogay, a traditional cucumber salad. By mixing Asian cucumbers with onions, tomatoes, chili flakes, cilantro, and datshi cheese, you get a refreshing (and unquestionably Bhutanese) side salad. Goen hogay will keep you fueled and thriving as you trek through the Himalayas, and it’s a nice, light dish when paired with some of the heartier options.
In some areas of Bhutan, the landscape is filled with farms that grow and harvest buckwheat. A grain that is often used as a replacement for rice, buckwheat is a gluten-free, vegetarian source of protein. It’s rich in fiber, and it can be used in a variety of ways.
One of the best ways to reap the benefits of buckwheat is to indulge in puta, Bhutanese buckwheat noodles. Eat them tossed in chili sauce, or immerse them in cheese. However you choose to devour this dish, know that it’s not only delicious, but nutritious too!
The final dish on our foodie’s guide to Bhutan features buckwheat in a more light-hearted way. Khur-le are buckwheat pancakes, and they’re super easy to find in Bhutan! Slightly thicker and spongier than traditional flour pancakes, this finger food can be enjoyed at breakfast with gondo datshi (remember: scrambled eggs) or as a dipping side to any of the stews. Top them with chili and cheese, or pack them as a hiking snack. Feed your inner child!
Don’t these traditional Bhutanese dishes sound amazing? One of the most enjoyable ways to immerse yourself into a culture is to visit the country and try the local food. Book an extraordinary journey through Bhutan today!
Want to learn more about this country before you visit? Check out this article on five more reasons to book a trip, and if you’re ready to go, don’t forget to read this article on everything you need to know before you leave.
Xoxo, Grace Poulos
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